free culture

For a country suffering from economic devastation and political upheaval, Greece is not accustomed to bursts of optimism.  But last weekend provided a showcase of hopeful, practical solutiions at the second annual CommonsFest, held in Heraklion on the island of Crete.  The festival brought together a dazzling array of commons and peer production communities:  hackers, open knowledge advocates, practitioners of open design, hardware and manufacturing, open health innovators, sustainable farming experts, among many others. 

Vasilis Kostakis, a political economist and founder of the P2P Lab in Greece, noted that the “key contribution of CommonsFest has been to bring together so many components of the commons movement and raise awareness amongst them.  People had the chance to meet, talk and learn from each other with the aim of creating the seed of a larger movement.” Kostakis said that the crowdfunded festival “illustrates that the philosophy that has emerged from free software and open content communities actually extends to many aspects of our daily lives.”

The event drew hundreds of people to twenty-four talks, nine workshops and an exhibition of many commons-based technologies and projects.  Kostakis said that CommonsFest participants are preparing a forthcoming “declaration for the protection and the strengthening of the Commons” that will soon be published in Greek and then translated into other languages.  [I will add the declaration to this blog post as an update when it is available. –DB] 

CommonsFest also featured an open art space with more than 30 video works licensed under Creative Commons licenses and the screening of a new documentary, “Knowledge as a Common:  Communities of Production and Sharing in Greece,”organized by the Cinema Group from the University of Crete.  The film’s director, Ilias Marmaras, spoke afterwards.  Both events were intended to “highlight the collaboration that we can build working together as peers” and show that “the freedoms provided by the Creative Commons licenses help us share easily and create cultural value.”

Commons projects and activism seem to be really hopping in Greece:  just last week a collaborative ebook, Πέρααπότοκράτοςκαιτηναγορά: Ηομότιμηπροοπτική, was published in Greece as a free, downloadable pdf file.  The ebook presents a vision for a commons-oriented economy and society.  Print copies will be available at the end of May, at a price defined by the reader.

Michel Bauwens, Founder of the P2P Foundation, has recorded four short videos describing the FLOK Society’s pioneering research project in Ecuador.  FLOK stands for “Free, Libre, Open Knowledge,” and the FLOK Society is a government-sponsored project to imagine how Ecuador might make a strategic transition to a workable post-capitalist knowledge economy. As Research Director of the project, Michel and his team are exploring the practical challenges of making commons-based peer production a widespread, feasible reality as a matter of national policy and law. 

The four videos – each four to six minutes in length – are a model of succinct clarity.  Here is a short summary of each one, which I hope will entice you to watch all of them (links are in the titles below):

Part I: The FLOK Society

Bauwens explains the significant of the FLOK Society project as “the first time in the history of mankind that a nation-state has asked for a transition proposal to a P2P economy.” He asks us to “imagine that for every human activity, there is a commons of knowledge that every citizen, business and public official can use.”  This regime of open, shareable knowledge would move away from the idea of privatized knowledge accessible only to those with the money to pay for copyrighted and patented knowledge.  The system could be adapted for education, science, medical research and civic life, among other areas. 

The FLOK Society project is actively looking for what it calls the “feeding mechanisms” to enable and empower commons-based peer production.  For open education, for example, open textbooks and open educational resources would help people enter into this alternative regime.  However, there are both material and immaterial conditions that must be addressed as well. 

One material condition is proprietary hardware, for example.  If open systems could replace the existing lock-down of proprietary systems, all users could spend one-eighth of what they are currently paying, on average.  Moreover, eight times more students could participate in creating and sharing, said Bauwens, which itself would yield enormous gains.  As for "immaterial conditions" that need to change, innovations like “open certification” are needed to recognize the skills of those who learn outside of traditional institutions, as in hacker communities.

The Death of a Hacktivist

Aaron Swartz’s death is a sobering story about the collision of free culture activism with vindicative prosecutorial powers.  It’s also about an amazing tech wizard and the personal costs of his idealism.  Here’s hoping that Swartz’s tragic suicide at age 26 prompts some serious reflection about the grotesque penalties for a victimless computer crime and the unchecked power of federal prosecutors to intimidate defendants.  Perhaps MIT, too, should reflect deeply on its core mission as an academic institution – to help share more knowledge, not fence it off. 

Swartz was a hacker-wunderkind, a boy genius who played a significant role in many tech innovations affecting the Internet:  RDF tags for Creative Commons licenses; a version of RSS software for syndicating web content; an early version of the platform that became Reddit, the user-driven news website.  In 2006, when I interviewed Swartz for my book Viral Spiral, I was astonished to encounter a 19-year-old kid who had already done the path-breaking technical work that I just mentioned.  

Swartz had been a junior high school student when he was doing mind-bending coding and design work for the Creative Commons licenses and their technical protocols.  “I remember these moments when I was, like, sitting in the locker room, typing on my laptop, in these debates, and having to close it because the bell rang and I had to get back to class….” 

When a windfall of cash came Swartz’s way following the sale of Reddit to Conde Nast, Swartz did not launch a new startup to make still more money.  He intensified his activism and coding on behalf of free culture.  He sought out new projects that would make information on the Internet more accessible to everyone.

In 2006, he worked with Brewster Kahle of the Internet Archive to post complete bibliographic data for every book held by the Library of Congress – information for which the Library charged fees.  A few years later, working with guerilla public-information activist Carl Malamud, Swartz legally downloaded a large fraction of court decisions that were hosted by PACER, the Public Access to Court Electronic Records.  PACER is the repository of US court decisions.  Swartz’s idea was to reclaim documents that taxpayers had already paid for.  Why should we have to pay 10 cents per page to access them?  (Those documents can now be found at Malamud’s site,

Josh Wallaert, writing at the Places Journal (at the Design Observer Group) – “the online journal of architecture, landscape and urbanism,” has a wonderful post about nominally public spaces on the Internet.  The post, called “State of the Commons,” notes:

….Flickr has become a ghost town in recent years, conservatively managed by its corporate parent Yahoo, which has ceded ground to photo-sharing alternatives like Facebook (and its subsidiary Instagram), Google Plus (and Picasa and Panoramio), and Twitter services (TwitPic and Yfrog).  An increasing share of the Internet’s visual resources are now locked away in private cabinets, untagged and unsearchable, shared with a public no wider than the photographer’s personal sphere. Google’s Picasa and Panoramio support creative commons licenses, but finding the settings is not easy. And Facebook, the most social place to share photos, is the least public. Hundreds of millions of people who have photographed culturally significant events, people, buildings and landscapes, and who would happily give their work to the commons if they were prompted, are locked into sites that don’t even provide the option. The Internet (and the mobile appverse) is becoming a chain of walled gardens that trap even the most civic-minded person behind the hedges, with no view of the outside world…..Canton Public Library, 1903, Canton, Ohio; entry in the Wiki Loves Monuments USA contest. [Photo by Bgottsab], from

For better and worse, public-making in the early 21st-century has been consigned to private actors: to activists, urban interventionists, community organizations and — here’s the really strange thing — online corporations. The body politic has retreated to nominally public spaces controlled by Google, Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr, which now constitute a vital but imperfect substitute for the town square. Jonathan Massey and Brett Snyder draw an analogy between these online spaces and the privately-owned public space of Zuccotti Park, the nerve center for Occupy Wall Street, and indeed online tools have been used effectively to support direct actions and participatory democracies around the world.  Still, the closest most Americans get to the messy social activity of cooperative farm planning is the exchange of digital carrots in Farmville.

On the Al Jazeera website, Michel Bauwens of the P2P Foundation has a terrific big-picture assessment of the impressive growth of the sharing economy and peer production, and its serious long-term implications for capitalism.   

He starts by explaining how commons-based peer production is rapidly expanding.  It is no longer confined to the familiar, robust worlds of free software, wikis, the blogosphere, and social networking in cyberspace.  Peer production has moved on to various physical realms.  It can be seen in such innovations as open source manufacturing, which has produced Wikispeed, a 100 mpg car built by a team of volunteers in just three months, and Arduino, the open-source electronics prototyping platform.  It can also be seen in various crowdsourcing and social lending platforms, such as Kickstarter (which I recently learned channeled more money to artists in 2011 than the U.S. National Endowment for the Arts).

Peer production has also spawned a whole new sector of “collaborative consumption.”  This consists of organized forms of swapping and bartering, car-sharing, CouchSurfing and other lifestyle practices and innovative markets based on sharing.  The point in most cases is to reduce one’s dependence on the market and live a more social, convivial life.  The goal is not acquisition and ownership, but access and use.

The infrastructure for starting and maintaining new commons just got a big boost in Spain with the founding of, a new crowdfunding website. The explicit mission of is to help finance and support “the independent development of creative and innovative initiatives that contribute to the common good, free knowledge, and open code.”

The site is obviousy inspired by the crowdfunding website Kickstarter and other distributed-funding innovations, but differs in being dedicated exclusively to funding open-source and commons-related projects. It is also dedicared to fostering distributed collaboration on proposed and ongoing projects.

Most of the website is in Spanish, but here is an English FAQ describing the project. Geoteo sees itself as “a platform for investing in 'feeder capital' that supports projects with social, cultural, scientific, educational, technological, or ecological objectives that generate new opportunities for the improvement of society and the enrichment of community goods and resources.”

The City of Linz in Austria has long been in the forefront of civic-minded uses of the Internet and digital technologies.  In 1979, it started the Ars Electronica festival, a showcase for cutting-edge experiments in digital and media arts, which was followed in 1987 with the Prix Ars Electronica, a prestigious international award for the most exemplary, pioneering websites and computer art.  In 2005 the city built 118 wifi hotspots in public squares so that citizens could have free access to the Internet.  Through the Public Space Server project, Linz began to provide personal e-mail inboxs on the city’s servers and to host non-commercial content on the Internet.

So it is exciting to learn that the City of Linz is now trying to take the free culture/open platform sensibility to a whole new level.  It wants to use the Internet to transform city politics, governance and culture into a vast ecosystem of commons.  Last July city officials announced that it would launch Open Commons Region Linz, a series of region-wide initiatives that aspires to make local information and creativity as open, accessible and shareable as possible.  The Green Party and politically minded digital leaders believe that by making it easy for citizens to access and share knowledge on a local basis, it will stimulate digital innovators to produce locally useful information tools while encouraging greater civic engagement and more robust economic development.

One of the recurrent questions that people have about the future of the Internet is, So how are creators going to make money in the digital environment?  The good news is that the Free Culture Forum – a Barcelona-based international gathering of free software, free culture, creators and policy activists – has addressed these very questions in a major “how to” guide that was just released.   

In “Sustainable Models for Creativity in the Digital Age,” the FCF affirms: 

We can no longer put off re-thinking the economic structures that have been producing, financing and funding culture up until now.  Many of the old models have become anachronistic and detrimental to civil society.  The aim of this document is to promote innovative strategies to defend and extend the sphere in which human creativity and knowledge can prosper freely and sustainably.

This report is aimed at policy reformers, citizens and free/libre culture activists to provide them practical tools to understand the policy options and revenue models, and the importance of the commons in the new digital marketplaces.

Two weeks ago, I blogged about how Brazil is turning its back on the free software and free culture movements, and moving to defend entrenched, proprietary cultural industries:  a terribly disappointing turn of events.  Now there is an international petition being circulated in Portuguese, French, Spanish and English to express widespread dismay at this recent turn of events. A copy of the petition is below.  You can sign it by going to this website.

The petition follows:

(English translation of the Carta de representantes da sociedade civil à Presidente Dilma Roussef e à Ministra da Cultura Ana Buarque de Hollanda)

A User's Guide to the IP Wars

In the 1990s, a variety of industries dependent on copyright, trademark and patent law decided that the Internet and new digital technologies were getting way too dangerous. Upstart competitors with innovative business models were starting to invade well-established markets.  Worse, ordinary people were starting to bypass the market system and challenge the supremacy of copyright and patent law (and to a lesser extent, trademark law).  People began to create their own freely shareable alternatives using free software, co-production of content and virtually free distribution.

And so it was that the corporate giants of information and culture staked out the high ground of “property rights.”  It would be the citadel from which they would defend their entrenched business models and fight the “dangers” of digital networks.  The result has been the IP Wars, a sprawling set of political, economic and cultural conflicts that continue to rage today. 

It is a far-ranging conflagration that affects dozens of creative and cultural enterprises -- film production and distribution, musical performance and recording, book publishing, photography and video production, pharmaceutical development, scientific research, scholarly publishing and databases, among many other arenas.

There has also been a strenuous backlash to IP industries.  People with HIV/AIDS have risen up to fight the broad patent claims of the pharmaceutical industry, which has made life-saving drugs unaffordable to millions of people in need.  Hackers have organized to resist the proprietary lock-down of software code, and insisted upon basic human freedom to copy and share their code.  Subsistence farmers have resisted patent laws that promote genetically modified crops and threaten their seed-sharing practices.

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